The very flag of freedom that waves over our heads is formed from material cultivated by slaves, on soil moistened with their blood drawn from them by the whip of a republican taskmaster!—Elijah Parish Lovejoy
Update: H&M responded to our article this morning (3 February) by directing us toward a specific statement regarding the use of child labor in Turkey. The statement, in part, reads: “In accordance with our policy on Syrian refugees in Turkey, we terminated this business relationship immediately.” The full statement from H&M, dated the same day we published this article, can be found here. While we applaud H&M’s rapid response to this issue, there remain multiple garment factories, especially in India and Asia, that exploit their workers and treat them very much as slaves. We are thankful that one company has acted positively, but the truth is that fast fashion chains fuel a problem so large that keeping track of violations is practically impossible.
You may want to hold on to your chair. This is going to be a bumpy and unpleasant ride that is far overdue. I’m going to be extremely blunt: if you purchase your clothes from H&M, Target, Wal-Mart, Sears, Macy’s, or pretty much any other store in a mall, chances are your clothes were made by slaves. No, not slaves in the sense we think of coming from the American South in the 19th century, but rather immigrant workers around the world, some of whom are children, toiling for substandard wages in substandard conditions, without the most basic tenets of freedom such as the ability to come and go at will. These are the people who are making the clothes that make the nightmare of fast fashion possible. They are giving up their lives so that you can get a copy of a designer dress for $12. YOU are fueling the demand and they are the ones paying a most fatal price.
Pardon me if I seem a little over-dramatic here, but the rate of articles that have been published in the past three days regarding this subject have me sick to my stomach. We’ve known for some time there was a problem, and many of us believed that there were precautions in place to put an end to some of the worst conditions in places like Bangladesh, but that’s not happening. Any company that is claiming they regularly inspect their suppliers for human rights violations is either lying or, themselves, being lied to.
The Guardian has documented cases where Syrian refugees in Turkey, some as young as twelve years old, are working illegally in the garment industry there, with painfully low wages that cannot provide safe living conditions, and work conditions that are dangerous. There is little question that these people are essentially slaves. While the article focuses on clothes destined for European markets, be quite sure that some of those same suppliers are generating clothes for the American discount market as well.
Quartz magazine reported that some workers in Bangalore, India, working in shops that produce clothing for H&M, Tommy Hilfiger, The Gap, Zara, and many others, live in company-owned hostels where they are under strict guards that monitor their movement. Some women are only allowed out for two hours on Sunday to purchase food. The rest of the time their movement is limited to going between the factory and the hostel. Only slaves are treated so inhumanely.
The Guardian also found that, following the 2013 disaster at the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 garment workers, more than half of H&M’s suppliers there had yet to install basic fire safety measures. More than a third of top-rated suppliers have not removed sliding doors and collapsible gates. 13% had not even taken the steps to remove locks from doors so workers have a path of escape in the event of fires. These poor people are trapped. They are slaves making the clothes that we wear in the US and Europe.
What’s even more frightening is that the level of abuses may be worse than reported. Workers from human rights related NGOs often have difficulty getting a good look at working conditions and talking to factory employees. The Atlantic recently reported on a program called Laborlink that is specifically designed to help workers such as these report employer abuses, but many of the workers in Turkey and Bangladesh don’t have access to cell phones to use that system.
What can you do? Believe it or not, you have options. The strongest move you can make is with your wallet, by not shopping at stores that produce cheap, fast fashion. Stop and think for a moment. If you’re getting a new t-shirt for five dollars, common sense should tell you that garment was not made by someone who is being treated fairly and receiving a decent wage. Where you shop matters. Stop thinking that you need a new outfit for every tiny event that you attend. Pay more for properly-made clothes and buy less.
Another option is the growing makers movement happening across the US. Purchasing clothing crafted by local designers and artisans removes any doubt of who is making your clothes. Not only are you not putting your money into fashion’s slave trade, but you’re helping out the local economy as well. While I can’t speak directly for other cities, those local to Indianapolis can contact the very nice folks at Pattern Magazine for information on local makers.
There are political options as well, but time and space prohibit me from detailing those and, quite honestly, that’s a subject best reserved for some time after the election season. No one in politics is paying any attention at the moment.
It grinds at my gut to think that there’s any chance I might be wearing clothes made by slaves. We cannot allow this practice to continue. We have a voice. We have a choice. Use it.